Critical valleys in drought and key issues

Climate overview

NSW is experiencing the most severe drought on record. It is even worse than the 1940s drought or the Millennium drought. Combined with a growing population, the climate is putting unprecedented pressure on the existing water supply in metropolitan and regional NSW.

This drought is drier and hotter than any other NSW drought in the last 120 years. Since January 2017, rainfall has been the lowest on record. The 2017, 2018 and 2019 calendar years were the warmest on record. Major rural NSW water storages are approximately 25% of capacity on average, although some are at 3% or less.

For 2019, the vast majority of NSW received rainfall at least below average and in many parts of the north of the state the lowest on record.

All the major inland NSW river systems, except the Murrumbidgee Valley (shown in the map below) and the smaller north and south coast regulated river systems are classified in emerging, severe or critical drought stages. Drought conditions are also emerging in valleys on the NSW coast.

Drought stages summary, August 2019

Northern basin overview

The areas experiencing the worst effects of this drought are the northern Murray-Darling Basin and the Lower Darling. Inflows to each of the major northern inland NSW regulated rivers are now the lowest on record. Northern NSW has experienced many two-year periods of sustained low inflows. We’re now entering an unprecedented third year.

Major storages in all the northern inland NSW are at critically low levels. There was no significant winter or spring rainfall in 2019 resulting in inflows.

Autumn 2019 was the last period when any new flows meaningfully contributed to NSW rivers in the northern basin. Each of these small flows was protected from irrigation extraction, including the storage releases for the environment known as the Northern fish flow. In some stretches of the Barwon River, the only flows received since April 2018 were released from upstream storages.

Any new inflows to the northern basin since early-2018 have been preserved for high priority needs, consistent with water sharing plan rules and the NSW Extreme Events Policy.

Other areas of the State

While the most extreme and prolonged drought period is occurring in the northern NSW basin, drought is now extending into the coastal areas of NSW. The Sydney region has Stage 2 water restrictions and many coastal towns are on severe water restrictions. For the first time, we are also seeing significant falls in the storage levels of the small government dams Toonumbar Dam on the North Coast and Brogo Dam on the South Coast.

How we’re responding

In light of these unprecedented conditions, the NSW government is responding in a range of ways to support those most affected by water shortages:

1.     Clearer policy direction

2.     On-ground measures

  • Construction of emergency infrastructure works, such as temporary weirs, pipelines and access to lower levels in storages  to extend town water and other high priority supplies for as long as possible
  • Changes to river system operations to preserve remaining supplies for critical human water needs
  • A coordinated approach across government to mitigate poor water quality and fish death events, including emergency response planning, increased monitoring, artificial oxygenation and fish relocation
  • Appointment in January 2019 of the Regional Town Water Supply coordinator to ensure every regional town in NSW has safe, clean drinking water
  • Establishment in November 2019 of the Office of Drought Response to better coordinate support delivered by all NSW Government agencies for farmers, communities, businesses and towns affected by drought
  • In total, the NSW Government has committed $2 billion to it's Drought Emergency Relief Package including:
    • $210 million in emergency assistance for towns for infrastructure such a bores and water carting if necessary
    • Interest free or low interest loans to farmers for water and other on-farm infrastructure
    • Transport subsidies for primary producers for transport of stock, feed and water
    • Waiving a range of government fees, including fixed water charges
  • Details of NSW Government Emergency Relief funding provided to local water utilities can be viewed in the interactive map.
  • The Government has also committed $1 billion to the Safe and Secure Program for longer term water security and sewerage projects for regional towns.

3.     Better communication and coordination

Drought-affected valleys

An overview of the situation in each valley as at 8 January 2020 is described in the tables below.  You can also download a high resolution version of the map (JPG 9.4 MB).

Lower Darling 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage

Storage Level
  • Menindee Lakes less than 1% (7GL) of active capacity.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security in 2019/20, all carryover suspended.
  • Last general security allocation made in 1 July 2017.
  • Reduced allocations announced for high priority (town, domestic and stock) and high security (permanent plantings) needs – but water will not be able to be delivered in 2019/20 until inflows occur.
Actions
  • Temporary water restriction put in place on 4 December 2018 in the Lower Darling limiting water extraction to high priority needs only. This continues.
  • Four block banks constructed in river in 2018 to pool water for stock and permanent plantings. Water pools are now very low and effectively empty in some cases.
  • Pipeline from Murray River to supply Broken Hill began operation in April 2019.
  • Water carting is in place for domestic water for some landholders not connected to town supplies.
  • Releases ceased in the Lower Darling once the block banks were filled in January 2019.
  • DPI Fisheries installed aerators at four locations and three were installed by OzFish and local community in 2019/20.
  • In September 2019, 783 large adult fish were relocated to more permanent water.
  • Valley based technical groups, including government and community representatives, established in the Lower Darling to advise on strategic interventions and priority actions.
  • Aerators installed in Lake Wetherell and other fish refuge pools in Lower Darling.
  • Critical Water Advisory Panel operating.
Issues
  • Fish deaths in December 2018 and January 2019 because of low dissolved oxygen levels.
  • High risk of fish deaths again in summer - small number of deaths in November 2019.
  • High risk of algal blooms as weather warms. Red alert for Lake Wetherell.
  • Supply behind block banks is almost exhausted and quality poor.
  • Small flows reached Wilcannia upstream of the Lakes on 15 June 2019 but did not contribute any volume to Menindee Lakes.
Outlook
  • Substantial flows required upstream in the Barwon-Darling River and tributaries to improve storage level and flush lower river.
  • Small flows from localised heavy rainfall near Bourke in early-November 2019 did not reach Wilcannia.
  • Around 20 to 50 GL would be needed to replenish the lower river.
Barwon-Darling River 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage

Allocations
  • Allocations announced on 1 July 2019, but water unable to be pumped by irrigators due to temporary water restrictions.
River Level
  • A release of environmental water in autumn/winter of 2018 from the Gwydir and Border Rivers provided flow down to Menindee Lakes.
  • During March to August 2019 small inflows from tributaries, local rainfall and another environmental release - Northern Fish Flow event - restarted flows in some sections and replenished town weir pools and fish refuge pools. Flows did not reach Menindee Lakes.
  • Rainfall in early November 2019 provided flows down the Warrego River and flows over the Bourke town water weir. This is the first time in over 400 days that flows have occurred over the Bourke town weir.
Actions
  • Pumping for commercial purposes from the Barwon-Darling River has not been permitted. Restriction on A, B, C class pumping between Culgoa junction and Menindee Lakes commenced on 4 November to 31 December to protect inflows for critical needs.
  • A restriction on pumping from the lower Namoi River applied on 31 March 2019 allowed some flow to reach Walgett, at the junction with the Barwon River. This restriction was repealed on 6 May 2019.
  • Flows from the Nebine/ Culgoa River reached the Darling River and increased the level of Bourke’s town water supply weir.
  • A request was made to the Queensland Government to allow some high flows to pass Beardmore Dam and to cross the NSW border.  Some flows entered the NSW system and provided water for local needs.
  • The 2019 environmental water release of around 30 GL from Glenlyon Dam in the Border Rivers and Copeton Dam in the Gwydir reached Warraweena on 28 July, but not Bourke - travelling over 1,500 river kilometres.
  • Two aerators installed in the Collarenebri weir pool in collaboration with local fishing club and Aboriginal community.
  • Funding provided to towns for emergency bore supplies and in the case of Walgett and Bourke for works to improve quality.
  • Critical fish refuges pools have been mapped along the Barwon-Darling.
  • Critical Water Advisory Panel - operating.
Issues
  • Barwon-Darling irrigators have not been able to pump any significant water since mid-2017.
  • While flows and rainfall during the year assisted in topping up some town water supply weirs, there are still some sections of the river which have not received flows in 2019.
  • Towns are also using artesian bore water but experiencing higher sodium levels.
  • NSW Health testing the quality of the artesian water supply for Walgett.
  • Red alerts for algal blooms decreased over winter, but likely to occur again as the weather warms up throughout summer. Red alert at Brewarrina.
Outlook
  • Substantial flows required upstream in NSW and Queensland tributaries to provide flushing flows along the length of the Barwon-Darling.
Upper and Lower Namoi River 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage - Lower Namoi.

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage - Upper Namoi.

Storage Levels
  • Keepit Dam at 0.5% (3 GL) of active capacity (effectively empty).
  • Split Rock Dam at 1% (3 GL).
  • The Namoi Valley has entered the lowest inflow (worst drought) since 1918.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security in Lower Namoi for 2019/20 and all carryover water suspended.
  • Last Lower Namoi general security allocation made in August 2017.
  • Zero for general security in the Upper Namoi for 2019/20 and suspension of some carryover water.
  • Reduced high security allocations for both the Upper and Lower Namoi Valleys, but water will not be able to be delivered in the Lower Namoi in 2019/20 until inflows occur.
Actions
  • Water transferred from Split Rock to Keepit Dam during 2018.
  • No further releases will be made to Lower Namoi water users unless inflows increase.
  • Natural inflows caused by rainfall in late March 2019 were restricted to town, domestic and stock and high security access only. Some useful flows reached Walgett in April. Restrictions on access repealed on 6 May 2019.
  • Pian Creek replenishment flow deferred.
  • Temporary water restrictions (section 324 order) were placed on water users on 6 December 2019 in the Upper Namoi, restricting access to water to secure town water supplies for Manilla township.
  • Upper Namoi changed from severe to critical drought stage on 7 November.
  • Fish refuge pools are being mapped and fish rescues being undertaken during December.
  • Critical Water Advisory Panel operating.
Issues
  • Because of low water levels boating access has been limited to Keepit Dam.
  • Low flows downstream of Keepit Dam and high temperatures contributed to fish deaths in January 2019 and further deaths throughout the system in November 2019 because of very low water availability.
  • Two solar aerators installed in the dam.
Outlook
  • Storages need about 85,000 ML of inflow before normal regulated river operations can resume.
Macquarie River 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage.

Storage Levels
  • Burrendong Dam at 2% (22 GL).
  • Windamere Dam at 27% (101 GL).
  • New drought of record – inflows are approximately 1/3 of previous record low inflow.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security for 2019/20 and all carryover water suspended.
  • Last general security allocation made in August 2017.
  • Reduced high priority (town, domestic and stock) and high security allocations for 2019/20.
Actions
  • Initial transfer of water from Windamere to Burrendong Dam in January 2019. The final transfer likely to occur in February 2020 (leaving the agreed 70 GL reserve in Windamere Dam).
  • Environmental flow rules and allocation provisions in the water sharing plan suspended in July 2019.
  • Raising of Warren Weir ceased regulated river flow to the lower river and Duck and Crooked Creeks from October 2019 to prioritise water for towns, including Dubbo, Nyngan and Cobar. Regulated flow in Gunningbar Creek ceased in December 2019.
  • Work underway to enable pumping of storage below outlet works.
  • The Government has committed $8.3 million for the off-stream storage for Nyngan and Cobar, $2 million for critical maintenance of the Albert Priest Channel which supplies Nyngan and Cobar, $30 million to Dubbo to expand its borefield and $2 million to allow Narromine to access groundwater.
  • Mapping of critical fish refuge pools. In February 59 endangered Southern Purple Spotted Gudgeons were rescued from drying pools in two creeks in the Macquarie River catchment and relocated to refuge sites, including Taronga Western Plans Zoo. In November 2019 220 fish were relocated to hatcheries or other river areas.
  • New dissolved oxygen sensors have been installed in Macquarie River and a large bubble plume aerator at Burrendong Dam to improve the quality of remaining water.
Issues
  • Flows to the lower river and Macquarie Marshes will need to be met from downstream tributary inflows.
  • Environmental account water will not be able to be released from the dam until storage conditions improve.
Outlook
  • If inflows do not occur, then the river will cease at Dubbo by mid 2020.
Gwydir River 
Drought Stage

Stage 3 - Severe drought

Stage 3 severe water shortage.

Storage Level
  • Copeton Dam below 6% (82 GL) of active capacity.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security for 2019/20, but all carryover water available.
  • Last general security allocation made in August 2017.
  • Full high priority and high security allocations for 2019/20.
Actions
  • Environmental releases were made in April 2019 to provide flow along the Lower Gwydir and Mehi system into the Barwon-Darling.
  • Environmental release made in October 2019 to improve quality of fish refuge pools.
  • Delivery of water in 2019/20 in block releases to conserve supplies.
Issues
  • Copeton Dam on amber alert for blue-green algae.
Outlook
  • Inflows of about 50 GL are required before a general security allocation can be made.
Border Rivers 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage

Storage Level
  • Pindari Dam at 4% (13 GL) of active capacity.
  • Glenlyon Dam at 3% (7 GL).
Allocations
  • Zero allocation for general security A and B class for 2019/20, and 50% of carryover water suspended.
  • Last general security B class allocation made in January 2018.
  • Full allocations announced for high priority and high security licence holders, although delivery of water will be limited.
Action
  • Environmental water was released in April/May 2019 to replenish waterholes for native fish along the river and into the Barwon-Darling to Brewarrina.
  • Priority in 2019/20 is to provide for town water supplies, with flows provided in block releases.
  • Final releases have been made in the Border Rivers to Boggabilla Weir for Boggabilla and Goondiwindi town water supplies. No releases will be made below Boggabilla.
  • Minimum flow releases are being made below Pindari Dam.
Issues
  • Inflows are less than 25% of average.
  • Releases are not able to be made to reach Mungindi.
  • Some fish kills in November 2019 as a result of runoff from bushfire affected areas.
Outlook
  • Supply is restricted in 2019/20 and carryover water will not be able to be delivered from regulated releases.
Peel River 
Drought stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage

Storage Level
  • Chaffey Dam at 14% (14 GL) of active storage.
Allocations
  • No allocation for general security in 2019/20.
  • Last general security allocation made in October 2018.
  • Reduced allocations for high priority (town and domestic and stock) and for high security users, although supply on the Peel River below Dungowan ceased from the start of December 2019.
Action
  • Temporary weirs constructed in the Peel River to extend supply for Tamworth and reduce around 17,000 ML in transmission losses below Chaffey Dam. The Government has committed $3.4 million for these works and $2 million for further supply investigations.
  • Rule in the water sharing plan requiring a minimum daily release from Chaffey Dam suspended on 2 December 2019. Pulse releases for environmental purposes are being made instead to conserve water.
  • Planning for a pipeline from Chaffey Dam to Dungowan is underway with the pipeline to be completed in March 2020 to further conserve water supplies.
  • Government has announced that it will construct a new larger Dungowan Dam.
  • Mixers being installed at priority sites in the Peel to improve quality of remaining pools.
Issues
  • Inflows into the dam and transmission losses below Chaffey Dam are at record high levels.
  • Supply below Dungowan restricted from the start of December 2019 and alternative supply required for downstream commercial users.
  • Some fish deaths in December below Dungowan as a result of ceasing flows.
Outlook
  • All efforts are being made to extend Tamworth's supply and following completion of pipeline from Chaffey Dam town water supplies.
Belubula River 
Drought Stage

Stage 3 - Severe drought

Stage 3 severe water shortage.

Storage Level
  • Carcoar Dam at 13% (5 GL) of active storage.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security for 2019/20 full carryover was initially available but subsequently restricted to 40% on 1 October 2019.
  • Full domestic and stock and high security allocations for 2019/20, although water below Canowindra may not be able to be supplied from regulated releases.
  • Last general security allocation made in December 2016.
Action
  • The end of system flow rule was met only intermittently throughout 2018/19 because of reduced water in storage and tributary inflows.
  • The rule in the water sharing plan was suspended in July 2019.
Issues
  • Low inflows into the storage in 2019.
  • Dam is a relatively small storage with a maximum capacity of 36 GL.
  • Inflows are only 50% of previous 32 month minimum on record.
Outlook
  • Tributary inflows will be required to meet demands at the end of the system.
Lachlan River 
Drought Stage

Stage 3 - Severe drought

Stage 3 severe water shortage.

Storage Level
  • Wyangala Dam at 11% (138 GL) of active storage.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security in 2019/20 and carryover restricted to 57%.
  • Last general security allocation made in August 2017.
  • Full town and domestic and stock allocations, but reduced high security allocations.
Actions
  • Annual replenishment flows completed to provide domestic and stock water.
  • Water Quality Allowance was released in summer of 2019 to reduce issues with blue-green algae outbreaks in the lower Lachlan.
  • Environmental water was delivered to Booligal Swamp in June, Booberoi Creek from June to August and mid Lachlan wetlands from July.
  • Environmental release from Wyangala Dam commenced in September 2019.  This provided water into Booberoi Creek, topped up Brewster weir pool and arrived in the Great Cumbung Swamp in mid November 2019.
  • Replenishment flows to lower Lachlan creeks have now ceased from 8 December and flows to the Willandra Creek system will cease between December 2019 and March 2020.
  • If dry conditions continue, top up flows to offset evaporation in Lake Cargelligo will need to cease from March 2020. This will extend remaining supplies in Wyangala Dam for towns.
Issues
  • Inflows into the Lachlan normally occur in winter/spring. Minimal inflows occurred in 2019  – close to the record minimums.
Outlook
  • Over 200 GL of inflow is required to enable a general security allocation to be made.
Murray River 
Drought Stage

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2 emerging water shortage.

Storage Level
  • Dartmouth Dam is at 50% (1911 GL) - shared resources.
  • Hume Dam is at 23% (696 GL).
Allocations
  • No general security allocation for 2019/20, although full carryover water is available.
  • Last general security allocation made in March 2018.
  • Full high priority and maximum security allocations (97%) provided, although conveyance allocations are 45.5%.
Actions
  • Drought operational planning is underway for 2019/20.
  • Environmental releases made in August and September 2019.
  • Conveyance allocations reduced, but have been increasing with inflows.
  • Commonwealth released environmental spring flow starting in August for 2 weeks and then September 2019 for 6 weeks. The flow was designed to water the Barmah-Millewa and Koondrook Perricoota Forests and provide flow through the system to the Lower Lakes.
Issues
  • The resources of the Murray River are shared between NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
  • The River Murray system as a whole experienced 'near extreme' dry inflow conditions for 2019/18 and further low inflows into 2019/20.
Outlook
  • Recent improvements in inflows have assured all high priority and carryover water can be met in 2019/20 and further improvements are being committed to meeting priority requirements in 2020.
Bega and Brogo 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage

Storage Level
  • Brogo Dam is at 14% (1 GL).
Allocations
  • High security 100%
  • General security commenced the 2019-20 water year at 40%
Actions
  • WaterNSW has established a River Operations Stakeholder Consultation Committee.
Issues
  • Storage levels in Brogo Dam have fallen rapidly from 98% (9 GL) on 1 July 2019 to 14% (1 GL) on 6 January 2020.
  • On 8 January 2020 all remaining general security account water was suspended to conserve remaining supplies for towns.
  • Releases likely to be reduced to only supplying water to the Bermagui offtake just below the dam.
  • Reductions in releases from the dam may impact on water quality in the Bega River, and affect town water supplies for Bega from their alluvial bores.
Outlook
  • Restrictions on water usage may be required if drought conditions deteriorate further.
Richmond 
Drought Stage

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2 emerging water shortage.

Storage Level
  • Toonumbar Dam is at 20% (2 GL).
Allocations
  • High security 100%
  • Local water utility and domestic and stock 100%
  • General security 100%
Actions
  • WaterNSW has established a River Operations Stakeholder Consultation Committee.
Issues
  • Storage levels in Toonumbar Dam have fallen from 66% (7.3 GL) on 1 July 2019 to 20% (2 GL) on 6 January 2020.
  • Unless further inflows are received, the dam is likely to be empty by February 2020.
  • While no towns are reliant on the Richmond regulated river, Casino benefits from the end of system flow provided by Toonumbar Dam.
Outlook
  • Flows may cease in March 2020 if drought continues.

Critical issues

Algal blooms were occurring across the state over the summer of 2019 and contributed to fish kills in a number of areas. Algal blooms impact on the use of river water and dams for recreation and impact on aquatic life. Towns also need to provide additional water treatment for water affected by algae.

For the latest algal alerts go to WaterNSW.

Information on the location of fish kills in NSW and the likely causes is available from the Department of Primary Industries

The department’s temporary water restrictions protect essential supplies and environmental releases.

Drought conditions have led most NSW rural towns to impose some level of water restrictions. Information on specific town restrictions are available from the local councils' websites or can be searched on the website of the Bureau of Meteorology.